Black-belt bodyguards for hireUntil recently, when one thought of “private security,” the image that may have sprung automatically to mind was of the glitter and glamour of celebrity bodyguarding (think Kevin Costner, “The Bodyguard”) or high-level state security (think Clint Eastwood, “In the Line of Fire”).
Recent world events, however, have exposed a murkier and far riskier end of the market. This year, the fatal ambush of U.S. Blackwater executives in Iraq and the imprisonment of British security consultant Simon Mann in Zimbabwe on charges of coup plotting have highlighted the activities of highly specialized global security firms.
Such companies, largely based in Britain, South Africa and the United States, perform security tasks in imploding states such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola and Iraq. They do not necessarily hire big men in suits: Employees are primarily ex-members of elite military units such as British, Russian, South African and U.S. special forces, the French Foreign Legion and the Brigade of Gurkhas.
But while in the past, state-sponsored North Korean “advisers” have “assisted” the governments of Zimbabwe and Ceaucescu-era Romania, no private Asian company has had a presence in the field. Until now.
In 2003, a South Korean private security company, NKTS, was established and threw its hat into the ring. “We are the first such company, not just in Korea, but also in Asia,” says Lee Woo-jae, a manager with the Seoul-based outfit.
NKTS ― the initials stand for “New Korea Total Services” ― entered the Middle East in December, providing security for the Jordanian royal family and training for the family’s bodyguard unit, becoming the first private company ever to win the contract, according to Mr. Lee. In Jordan, three Koreans now guard King Abdullah II, while female NKTS agents guard the queen.
“Undertaking security services for the royal family is an excellent way to further civil/diplomatic relations,” says NKTS’ former chairman Choi Seung-gab. All security personnel trained by NKTS in the Middle East prominently display a Korean flag on the breasts of their uniforms.
In January 2004, NKTS set up offices in Dubai and dispatched its first security agents to Iraq.
Globally, the firm has a staff of 100 Koreans and 300 locally recruited agents. It is currently negotiating a contract to handle security at the 2006 Asian Games in Qatar. NKTS also has a subsidiary, GIG (Global Industrial Group), which markets security equipment such as weapon detectors, body armor and scanners.
In typical Korean fashion, though, the firm’s finances remain a closed book. Company officials claim capital in 2003 of 5 billion won ($4.3 million), but declined to discuss current revenues, pricing for services, or how NKTS secured its presumably lucrative contracts in the Middle East.
In Iraq, the company’s main activities are twofold. Firstly, it trains the Kirkuk provincial police force, having signed a contract with Iraqi Interior Affairs Minister Nuri Bardan in March. NKTS staff instruct in counterterrorism and explosive detection, as well as areas in which Koreans may be considered world-class: riot suppression, physical training and martial arts.
NKTS also provides security for clients including Korean electronics, and Korean and U.S. construction firms, and has a camp in Baghdad for training local agents. Its protective services encompass personnel, installation and vehicle security.
It is a serious business: The equipment used by the company includes head and body armor, AK assault rifles and Browning heavy machine guns. Even so, it is a hazardous task.
“The Iraqi people seem very friendly, but the situation there is perilous,” says Bae Gi-kwang, 32, NKTS’ director of training. “There are weapons everywhere, and the nights in Baghdad are very, very dangerous: You really don’t want to walk, go outside or move anywhere after dark.”
Contrary to news reports, NKTS sees the main risk factors in the strife-torn nation not as politically-motivated terrorism, but as profit-motivated, such as kidnapping or robbery. Highway attacks are the biggest risk, hence the vehicle-mounted machine guns.
Thus far, NKTS have not been engaged in any explosive or shooting incidents. “Our agents are very well armed and very careful,” Mr. Lee says, “And so far, we’ve been lucky.”
What it takes to join
Who are NKTS? “Our key selling point is our people,” says current chairman, Min Wu-gi. “Most of our staff are from elite Korean military units: special forces, marines, underwater demolition teams, military police special investigators and the 707 Counter-Terrorist unit.”
South Korea, having faced the North Korean threat for half a century, offers a huge pool of trained former military personnel for NKTS to draw from, but joining the company is no easy thing. “In our first recruitment course, 400 people applied; 96 passed the tests,” says Mr. Bae.
At the NKTS training center in Gapyoung, Gyeonggi province, Mr. Bae ― an imposing man who served five years in the 707 Counter-Terrorist Battalion, Korea’s equivalent of Britain’s SAS or America’s Delta Force ― puts recruits through their paces. “There have been guys from special forces units who couldn’t hack our training,” Mr. Lee says.
At the center, agents learn weapons handling, house clearing, bodyguarding, vehicle and building protection tactics and foreign languages. Facilities include mockups of aircraft and buses to train anti-hijack scenarios.
The core test, though, is decidedly low-tech. “Running up mountains with full equipment and a pack really weeds them out,” says Mr. Bae. “If you can do that, you will have the mental as well as physical toughness we need.”
So what sets apart Korean security professionals? “I have trained with Delta Force in the U.S. and on joint exercises in Korea, and while the Americans have better equipment, we have better physical training and martial arts,” Mr. Bae says.
Martial arts seem to be crucial, with one of the company’s four female agents being a former taekwondo champion (the four female agents are all ex-members of the Korean special forces). Company agents also train in Tukong Moosool, or special forces unarmed combat, and “White Tiger,” the 707 Battalion’s specialized fighting method.
However, despite the extensive training regimen and the many skills mastered, Mr. Bae is blunt in stating NKTS’ core aim. “In this business, the client comes first,” he says. “Anytime, anywhere, if you keep the client alive, the mission is successful.”
A reporter gets a taste of war zone life
Reporter Choi Joon-ho thought his trip to England this spring was going well ― until, on his second day there, a gang of armed men shouting militant slogans seized him and his companions. The Koreans were hurled to the ground. Their arms and legs were bound, then hoods were pulled over their heads.
“As they were screaming at us, they were firing guns in the air,” recalls Mr. Choi, 36, now safely back in Korea. “Then they body-searched us. I really was genuinely scared ― even though I knew it was not real.”
It was a role-play: Mr. Choi was one of nine Korean print journalists attending special training for reporters covering war zones.
“Before this course, no Korean print journalist had done such training,” he says. “Although broadcast journalists here are well-funded, Korean war reporters from newspapers had no special budgets: no training, no flak jackets, no helmets, no insurance. They had to walk around war zones like Superman.”
The training was organized by the Korea Press Foundation, which sent invitations to all major newspapers. Mr. Choi applied and was accepted with eight others.
The five-day course was taught by Centurion Risk Assessment Services, in Hatfield, southern England; the instructors were former members of the U.K.’s crack Royal Marine Commandos. Subjects covered included first aid, weapons recognition, booby-trap and mine awareness, checkpoint practices, land navigation and how to behave during violent demonstrations.
“We did classroom training, then put it into practice in role-plays. We found that what we had learned in the classroom often perplexed us when we did it in the field,” explains Mr. Choi.
The training was highly realistic. “In the first aid, I think they were using movie makeup to replicate wounds and fractures, and in the booby trap training, I set one off, and it went up: boom! They used real gunpowder.”
The instructors impressed the journalists with their knowledge and their professionalism. “We had been out drinking with Steve, one of the staff, but the next day, at a checkpoint role play, his personality completely changed,” recalls Mr. Choi.
That exercise taught a useful lesson. “The scenario was that we were going through a government checkpoint on the way to [secretly] meet a guerrilla leader, so we all had to prepare lies to tell the soldiers why we wanted to go through the checkpoint. All our stories had to be consistent.”
There were amusing moments. “When we did the demonstration training, the instructors showed us films of violent demos, including footage from Korea,” Mr. Choi says, laughing. “Then, when they showed us how to make Molotov cocktails, some of us said, ‘Yeah, we know, we did it for real as students.’”
The Koreans were also introduced to British correspondents from Reuters, the BBC and ITN with extensive experience in war zones. They were shown reporters’ personal survival kits and scars from battlefield incidents.
Mr. Choi, who’s now on the JoongAng Ilbo’s sports and leisure desk, is ready for his next assignment. “All my co-workers kid me that as I took the course, I will be the next to be sent to the war zones,” says Mr. Choi. “My wife doesn’t like it, but I want to go: As a journalist, you need to meet new people and face new challenges, and I want to specialize in international journalism.”
by Andrew Salmon